(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Running in excess of nine hundred pages, Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacyexemplifies a Teutonic tendency to provide extensive, sometimes ponderous, background material as the setting for the jewels that are a treatise’s essence. On the one hand, Diplomacy is a speculative book that looks toward the twenty-first century with an eye toward assessing the international stature of the United States in the new world order that Kissinger identifies lucidly in his first and final chapters, each of which is a model of close reasoning and penetrating, usually brilliant, analysis. On the other hand, Diplomacy is a capsulized, if somewhat lengthy, history of international diplomacy as it has been practiced since the days of Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis Richelieu and William of Orange; Kissinger devotes his third chapter to this pair.

In the book’s second chapter, “The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson,” Kissinger sets up the diplomatic dichotomy that is to control much of the remainder of his argument. He presents Theodore Roosevelt accurately as a pragmatic practitioner of the Realpolitik, whereas he presents Woodrow Wilson, also with complete accuracy, as the idealist whose vision of a League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations, won him a Nobel Peace Prize although he did not achieve sufficient domestic support for his own country to become a member of the league that he had spawned.

Herein, according to Kissinger, lies the major dilemma with which United States diplomats and statesmen have been forced to deal during the period of their country’s ascendancy to the position of world power that it has enjoyed through most of the twentieth century. The great diplomatic tug-of-war for the United States has been between its ideals and the frequently daunting realities of the world situation. American ideals led the nation into involvement in Vietnam (to which Kissinger devotes three chapters, tracing the evolution of that conflict from the Harry S Truman administration to Richard Nixon’s face-saving extrication of United States forces from the situation), in Somalia, and in Haiti. The specter of Vietnam, however, has kept the United States from further entangling involvements in Cuba, Serbo-Croatia, Rwanda, and other hot spots throughout the world.

Given the idealistic context of United States diplomacy during the mid-twentieth century, Kissinger does not fault the military and diplomatic advisers to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson who advised escalation of the Vietnam conflict, although such an escalation in retrospect proved disastrous. The bitter memory of Vietnam has had a profound effect upon United States involvement in regional conflicts for the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Early in his first chapter, Kissinger points to the inherent contradictions in the United States’ practice of diplomacy. Born out of revolution against a monarchy, universally touted as a bastion of liberty and a land of incredible opportunity, the United States believes unerringly in political self-determination. So convinced are its citizens and its statesmen of the rectitude of its form of government, however, that they have spread its influence into every corner of the earth with a missionary zeal, sometimes imposing freedom upon populaces that had never been accustomed to living in a free society. The downside of this is evident, for example, in Haiti, where President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, elected by the people through a democratic process strongly encouraged and monitored by the United States, was for a long time unable to assume power, which was quickly grasped by a disgruntled military junta after the elections had made clear the will of the people.

Having set up his Roosevelt-Wilson dichotomy, Kissinger progresses to three historical chapters that deal with the international diplomacy of Cardinal Richelieu, William of Orange, and William Pitt the Younger (chapter 3); Prince Klemens von Metternich and the Congress of Vienna (chapter 4), the subject of Kissinger’s earlier A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22 (1957); and Napoleon III and Count Otto von Bismarck (chapter 5). In the first two of these three chapters, Kissinger presents approaches to international (read European) diplomacy devoted to preserving the balance of power in western Europe, a geographical area the size of Zaire, where cultural and language identities have always been clearly defined and where boundaries separate countries of essentially equivalent power and influence.

In the Napoleon-Bismarck chapter, Kissinger deals with the overambitious,...

(The entire section is 1906 words.)